Creative Writing Master Class with Novelist André Aciman

Kayla Thompson and Emily Ng
(L-R) Kayla Thompson ’21 and Emily Ng ’21

Members of Writers’ Block, a new creative writing program founded by seniors Kayla Thompson ’21 and Emily Ng ’21, invited well-known author André Aciman to Poly for a master class and workshop during community time on Friday, October 23. Writers’ Block and the English Department in conjunction with PANART, hosted Aciman, author of Call Me by Your Name, the best-selling novel, which was made into a feature film.

Andre Aciman via Zoom
André Aciman speaks with students via Zoom

Aciman also met virtually with teacher Christy Hutchcraft’s Creative Writing class and John Rearick‘s AP class in the morning. Hutchcraft’s class has been reading a few of Aciman’s essays to get more familiar with his personal work. Some years ago, Hutchcraft was part of The Writer’s Institute at CUNY, which Aciman founded. “That’s how the connection to Poly was made,” Hutchcraft said. “He has come to Poly once before and from the sound of it, he looks forward to returning next year!” 

Students had reached out to Hutchcraft over the summer “for help in organizing a reading and speaker series for Writers’ Block.” “Andre is an amazing scholar, memoirist, and novelist,” Hutchcraft said. “His follow-up book to Call Me by Your Name, entitled Find Me, is also being made into a major motion picture. We’re really fortunate to have him with us, albeit virtually, this year.” 

Ng explained that the goal of Writers’ Block is “to encourage students to dive into creative writing. We want our peers at Poly to explore the strange in their psyche and to discover how to translate the ambiguous onto paper. Our initial plans were to host peer-editing sessions with avid writers and to prepare their pieces for national/international writing competitions, but we’ve decided to focus on hosting author sessions given our current remote setting.”

Aciman’s novel “has garnered international recognition especially since its film adaptation,” Ng said. “The novel’s themes also cross over with coming-of-age topics that many of our peers at Poly may be able to relate to, and Aciman’s prowess in delivering such an enriching perspective, therefore, is invaluable to the community.”

Christy Hutchcraft

Hutchcraft  introduced Thompson, who explained that Writers’ Block, Coffeehouse, and Poly Arts Journal have joined together to form PANART, a new creative community to provide a “space for creative thinking to feel supported.” Ng then introduced Aciman, who teaches at the Graduate Center of CUNY, and is also the author of Eight White Nights, Out of Egypt, Find Me, numerous New Yorker pieces, and two collections of essays.

Aciman began with a short reading from Call Me by Your Name, “the famous scene when Oliver kisses Elio.” Aciman described how Elio, on a walk with his father, is reminded of that time and place and how a place and a memory can always be with you. He called them “vigils.” Aciman explained, “You reconnect not only with your past, but also with yourself…with who you were in the past.”

“I wanted to have a voice that I recognized as mine.”

Moderators Thompson and Ng had a few questions for Aciman before a Q&A with students  and faculty. Ng asked why Aciman had turned from scholarly writing to fiction. “I wanted to have a voice that I recognized as mine,” he said, noting that English is not his first language.

Ng asked about writing Call Me by Your Name. Aciman explained he “wanted to be in Italy,” so he set the story there. He spoke about developing the trajectory of the story so that the tension would build over time. Most of the dialogue “is in Elio’s head,” he said. “We don’t know what is in Oliver’s head.”

Aciman talked about falling in love with his characters.”I wanted to see what they would do together,” he said.

When a student asked if there was a political message in the gay love story, Aciman said, “Art should not deal with politics….There was no political agenda.”

He cautioned that a writer must “know how to take criticism.”

Another student asked about Aciman’s writing process. Aciman described how he keeps “chiseling away on the sentences.” He added that the “ability to change your mind” about what you are writing “is the difference between a writer and a journalist.” Aciman explained that it took 3 ½ months to write Call Me by Your Name, but two years to write Eight Nights. He cautioned that a writer must “know how to take criticism.”

Music teacher Maddy Wyatt said she had seen the film and then read the book. Aciman said he did not have a lot to do with the making of the film and did not even go to see it presented at the Sundance Film Festival. But then he was inundated by friends who reported that the film was “an instant success” at the festival, and met by sustained clapping. He did go to see the film at its Berlin premiere, he said.

The next Writers’ Block speaker will be poet Allison Hutchcraft on Friday, November 13 at 2:30 PM. Allison Hutchcraft has a soon-to-be-released new collection of poetry called Swale.